WARNING: This story has disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline in Canada can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
and Mary Annette Pember
MASKWACIS, Alberta, Canada – More than 15,000 Indigenous people from across North America are expected to pour into the heart of the Montana Cree First Nation at Maskwacis in anticipation of an apology Monday from Pope Francis for the Catholic Church’s role in the cultural genocide wreaked by Canada’s residential school system.
But for many, an apology won’t be enough, even if it is delivered in person by the Pontiff in what he has called a “penitential voyage” across Canada’s Indigenous territories.
“Some devout Catholics are excited to see the Pope, but some residential school survivors are angry and say they will never accept his apology,” Cara Currie Hall Montana Cree First National Maskwacis told ICT, as she prepared to return home to Maskwacis from North Dakota for the historic visit.
“I think we are seeing the beginning of justice coming,” she said. “There is significant momentum in the Pope’s visit.”
The Pope arrives Sunday, July 24, in Edmonton, Alberta, for a six-day swing across Canada that will take him to the lands that Canada’s three Indigenous peoples — First Nations, Métis and Inuit — call home.
His first stop will be in Maskwacis on Monday, July 25, before he returns to Edmonton to perform mass for thousands at Commonwealth Stadium. From there, he will make a pilgrimage to Lac Ste. Anne, a sacred site for Indigenous Catholics who bathe in the waters of the lake, then move on to Quebec and the National Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupre.
He’ll finish his trip on Friday, July 29, in Iqaluit, Nunavut, the homelands of the Inuit people, where he will meet privately with former residential school survivors before leaving to return to the Vatican.
The personal visit comes after more than 30 Indigenous delegates from Canada representing elders, knowledge keepers, survivors of residential schools and youth met with the Pope in April at the Vatican.
During the visit, the Pope begged their forgiveness and apologized for the “deplorable” abuses children suffered in Canada’s Catholic-run residential schools, but he has yet to apologize for the church’s role in the abusive school system.
The Pontiff foreshadowed a possible apology on behalf of the church, however, in his last Sunday service before embarking on the trip.
“Recently at the Vatican I received several groups, representatives of Indigenous peoples, to whom I manifested my sorrow and my solidarity for the evil they have suffered,” he said. “And now I will make a penitential voyage that I hope with the grace of God can contribute to the path of healing and reconciliation already undertaken.”
President Cassidy Caron of the Métis Nation Council, who was in the delegation that traveled to the Vatican, said people are expecting a deeper and more meaningful apology.
“We've certainly heard that there is a need for a stronger apology than the one that was delivered in April,” Caron said. “One that goes beyond just acknowledging that there were some individuals within the institution that harmed our families and our communities and Métis children … an acknowledgment that the Catholic Church as an institution played a significant role in the damage that has been done to our communities.”
The apology should also include penitence for the Indian boarding schools in the United States, which served as a model for those in Canada, tribal leaders said Thursday in a news conference.
“Survivors from the U.S. are welcome here,” said Chief Desmond Bull, elected councillor for the Louis Bull Tribe of the Maskwacis Nation.
“All First Nations across North America need to be included. We couldn’t extend a personal invitation because that is up to the Pope but the boarding school history hasn’t been told in the U.S. and they need to be included. All nations from across Turtle Island need to be included. “
The National Congress of American Indians in June called for Pope Frances to visit Indigenous territories across the United States, including Alaska, and to offer an apology for the church’s role “in the spiritual, cultural, emotion, physical and sexual abuse of citizens of tribal nations.”
More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were taken from their families and forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the late-1800s until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture.
Catholic missionaries operated more than 60 percent of the 139 residential schools in Canada with government funds, and more than one-fourth of the approximately 400 schools in the United States.
Thousands more attended church-funded schools.
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The aim was to convert the children to Christianity and assimilate them into mainstream society. Their hair was cut, they were beaten for speaking their Native languages and they often suffered physical or sexual abuse.
Many died at the schools and were buried in unmarked graves, never to return to their families.
Canada began an investigation of the school system after reaching the landmark Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2006 with 86,000 Indigenous people enrolled as children in the schools between 1879 and 1997. It was the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, and included a $1.9 billion compensation package.
In 2008, Canada issued a formal apology for its role in operating the residential schools, and formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to create a historical record of the history and enduring trauma. The commission’s harshly worded report issued in 2015 concluded the school system amounted to cultural genocide.
Then, in May 2021, the Tk'emlups Te Secwepemc First Nation announced that 215 remains of children had been found in unmarked graves around the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
The discovery drew international attention and prompted a widening of searches across Canada and in the United States for missing children. Already, more than 1,000 graves have been found in Canada and efforts continue.
Even before the grave sites were discovered, however, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil for the church’s role in the abuses against the Indigenous.
‘What did we do wrong?’
If an apology comes, it likely will be delivered at Maskwacis, the former site of the Ermineskin Residential School, one of the largest schools operated in Canada by Roman Catholics.
Maskwacis, an unincorporated community, is home to two Cree First Nations communities and serves three others, including Louis Bull. The population among the reserves is about 7,500.
The area, which means “bear hills” in Cree, regained its traditional name in 2014 after officials agreed to dump the name, Hobbema, named for a Dutch painter in the late 1800s.
The Pope is expected to visit the site of the former Ermineskin Residential School, meet with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, and deliver a formal address. All three communities are sending delegations to Maskwacis.
“We want justice,” said Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermine Cree Nation, at a press conference Thursday in Maskwacis by local chiefs and residential school survivors.
Rod Alexis, a residential school survivor of the Alexis Sioux Nation, said the emotional and spiritual pain was harder to endure than the physical abuse.
“I am a practicing Catholic, but sometimes I ask the Creator, ‘Why are we treated differently? What did we do wrong?’” Alexis said. “We opened our hearts to the settlers and Catholics and showed them how to survive, but in return they made us feel like we don’t belong.”
Wilton Littlechild, an honorary chief of the Ermineskin Cree Nation and uncle to Currie Hall, is a boarding school survivor who has been involved with the ongoing work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Littlechild and other Indigenous Canadian leaders extended an invitation for all boarding school and residential school survivors to come to Canada for the Pope’s visit.
Currie Hall and her husband, Ken Hall, of the Three Affiliated-MHA Nation, have been working to include the U.S. in the Pope’s expected apology along with other efforts to help the U.S. establish church and government policies similar to those in Canada.
“Chief Littlechild asked us to help include Indigenous peoples from the U.S. in the Pope’s visit,” Ken Hall said.
A number of Indigenous people from the United States were planning to attend. The Catholic Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, agreed to pay expenses for at least 50 boarding school survivors to travel to Canada for the Pope’s visit.
The trip was organized by Monsignor Chad Gion of the Catholic Indian Mission on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, but leaders at the diocese did not respond to questions from ICT.
Currie Hall believes that the U.S. Catholic leaders' reluctance to comment publicly about the church’s role in operating boarding schools may stem from fears of being called upon to make financial reparations as is happening in Canada.
Public apology or acknowledgement about Indian boarding school history among U.S. Catholic entities has been notably absent.
Chieko Noguchi with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said discussions are ongoing in the United States between church officials and Indigenous leaders.
“The Holy Father’s penitential pilgrimage to Canada offers a unique opportunity to engage in real and honest dialogue on the issue of boarding school accountability here in the United States,” Noguchi said in an emailed response to questions from ICT, “and it is a vital part of the process to inclusively discern how to go forward together as the Catholic Church walks with the impacted communities on a path towards healing.”
As highly anticipated as a Papal apology is, Indigenous leaders in North America agree it is only the next step in a long path toward healing.
Additional funding is needed for mental health services to help survivors and their descendants shake the grip of institutional trauma. Searches are continuing across Canada and the United States for unmarked graves of missing children, and efforts are underway to return the remains that can be identified.
“We don’t have the capacity to address our communities’ mental health needs,” said Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. of Alexander First Nation during the July 21 press conference. “There has been discussion with the government and Catholic leaders about providing those supports but so far there have been no commitments.”
Chief Ermineskin worried that the Pope’s visit could take an emotional toll.
“He will apologize and then he will leave,” Ermineskin said. “We’re left holding the bag. Who’s going to look after these individuals? We need to prepare ourselves.”
In the U.S., Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, launched a federal initiative to investigate the boarding school history in the U.S. and a report was released earlier this year. She now has scheduled a Road to Healing tour over the next year to hear testimony from boarding school survivors.
For now, though, all eyes are on Canada.
“We could not have anticipated an event like this 20 years ago,” said Bull, of the Louis Bull Tribe of the Maskwacis Nation. “It was only when the graves of our children were found and garnered international attention that this painful period of our history has been brought to light for the world to see.
“We want the truth of what happened to us to be taught in the schools and to be shared with the public.”
Arcand said the historic visit could be the start to providing justice for survivors.
“Sometimes I think our people are too forgiving, but that’s traditionally how we were taught; that’s our way,” Arcand said. “But there needs to be justice. This is an opportunity for the wrongs that were done to be fixed …
“My mind and heart are with survivors, how this will impact them, their families and our communities,” he said. “They have been carrying unimaginable trauma for many generations. For many, the acknowledgement of this pain is an important step towards reconciliation. I believe this apology is the beginning of a way forward for our people's road to healing.”
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